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Food Writer Aleta Watson (Part 2)

(Photoshop™ rendering by wm. christman)

(Photoshop™ rendering by wm. christman)

Last week, “…but the devil…” featured Part One of our interview with former San Jose Mercury-News food writer Aleta Watson. We talked about her career in journalism, how she got into writing about food, and her thoughts on celebrity chefs. Watson is well-spoken and thoughtful when speaking (and writing) about food and most of that comes from her love of cooking. Her new blog, The Skillet Chronicles, further amplifies her love of food.

We pick up the conversation mid-stream about food industry “buzzwords”:


wm.: I’d like to throw out some food buzzwords and get your thoughts on them. Let’s start with the Slow-Food movement.

Aleta: I generally love the food and I’m really interested in the local and sustainable part of it. But if you’re talking about the elitist part of it, the part where you have to have a lot of money actually do some of these things, I find that difficult.  When I wrote the story (earlier this year in the Mercury-News), it was clear to me that it’s not really a big enough movement to make much difference one way or another (right now). As I recall, it only has 60,000 members nationwide and that’s not very many, and most of the people spend their time in supper clubs eating good food.  But expanding beyond that, if they care, maybe there will be something there.

wm.: I agree with the elitist part, and in a way it’s kind of how I look at Farmer’s Markets. I find lots of the stuff horribly expensive. However, if you’re supporting local and sustainable then ultimately it’s worth it but much more needs to be done with that beyond the trendy.

Aleta: We’ve just been so surprised and we spend more time going to the Farmer’s Markets. In the Santa Cruz Mountains, there’s not really quite as much but we have a nice little Farmer’s Market…and Happy Boy Farms goes there. We’ve been buying the greens from Happy Boy and we’ve been astonished. We can make a half pound go for an entire week. When we buy greens from the grocery store, they only last a couple of days. It costs a little more to buy but I have much less waste because what I buy is fresh. Even their basil. I can buy a bunch and put it in a pitcher of water and it will last until it’s gone. When I buy the basil from the grocery store and it nearly gone just as I get it home.

wm.: Any thoughts or experiences with Molecular Gastronomy?

Aleta: I have had some, at Manresa and at Chez TJ, and occasionally in less stellar restaurants. I really think that I find it that exciting. I do like the concentrated flavors – the encapsulation of flavors when you bite into it, exploding into your mouth. There have been some citrus flavors that have been really wonderful. I went to Chocolat and was really impressed with it. But sometimes, these things are often like Jello to me.

I do like sous vide, but that’s not really “molecular gastronomy” but (that technique) can create some really amazing textures. In the Mercury-News Food Section, I worked a long time trying to come up with something on sous vide, and finally decided that it was just too tricky for me to try to get the home cook to do.

wm.: The thing about techniques like that, or like curing your own meat, is that there are dire warnings on the Internet about poisoning yourself. And while some of those things are true, especially if you don’t follow basic hygiene or temperature control, sous vide for me is just out of reach until I get the right equipment and can work out for myself the techniques. But it’s not “molecular gastronomy”…

Aleta: I think it’s in the same class or category but mostly I don’t like to have food to be made with a lot of gums. I feel that that’s what General Mills and Kraft have been doing for a long time. So when (restaurants) do a nicer job, it’s surprising but for the most part, off-the-wall, shocking flavors are not what I am looking for.

wm.: Where do you see the Bay Area food scene going?

Aleta: I think the real interesting part about the Bay Area is the emergence of really sophisticated, very high end Asian food. I think that’s what’s different here, and we have a really large core of people who appreciate it. Some of the best food I have eaten has been (this kind of) Asian food. I am thinking of places like Nami Nami and Xanh in Mountain View.

But I just as soon go to Vung Tau (in San Jose) just as long as I could get the good little rice cakes with the shrimp in them (báhn khot). I think that Vietnamese food is emerging, it’s not brand new but it’s continuing to grow and is going mainstream. Italian food will always be strong here. It is perfect for the Bay Area – it’s a good match. And Indian food is coming up too and is getting beyond the steam table stage which is what I think has held Indian food back.

wm.: So what’s next for you?

Aleta: I am freelancing but I haven’t gone very far with that because I haven’t been out (from the Mercury-News) very long. I started my food blog called The Skillet Chronicles. When I was working at the Merc, I didn’t have time to do it beforehand like I had hoped, so I am finishing it up now. I hope that will go some place. And I’d like to try my hand at food writing on a larger scale. It’s all kind of a little bit scary because I worked at newspapers for so long and I always knew that somebody wanted my story. But this is an opportunity for me to learn and explore, and that’s really what’s kept me enjoying it.

I do feel like I have a mission calling me to try and help people once again to see the pleasures of cooking their own food and eating it with their family. We [tend to] eat badly and don’t have that social connection anymore. So, if I can get people new and interesting recipes and not make all of them elaborate, maybe it will convince more people to see the creativity and fun in it.

So many young people are intimidated by the idea of cooking because they watch Top Chef and all the rest, and they have no idea that simple food can be good. When I interviewed Alice Waters, she was talking about the joy of this…during Slow Food Nation, she had her Green Kitchen where she brought in really respected chefs come in to cook very simply with a knife, a chopping board, a skillet and a set of basic ingredients. I thought it was a genius idea.

wm.: Aleta, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us.

Aleta: Thanks. I enjoyed it.

A collection of Aleta Watson’s articles is archived at the San Jose Mercury-News website. You can read those articles by clicking here.


Food Writer Aleta Watson (Part 1)

skiltop

Former San Jose Mercury-News food writer Aleta Watson is no stranger to the Bay Area. Except for a middle childhood in the Southern U.S., she grew up in the East Bay, graduated from San Jose State University and has written for, in her words, most of the newspapers, large and small, in the South Bay. She spent a bulk of that time at the Mercury-News, nine years as a hard news journalist covering Education and then as a food writer, editor and restaurant critic. She recently left the Merc to pursue freelancing and to start her own food blog called The Skillet Chronicles.

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Watson to find out a bit more about her career, talk about food trends, and get her take on food in the Bay Area.


wm.: When did you start as a food critic?

Aleta: I have always liked to cook, but when I first entered journalism I wouldn’t be caught dead in the Features department because it wasn’t serious enough. And it wasn’t earth shaking enough. And at that point, women had to prove that they could do hard news. But I just kept eying the food section and it was looking better and better. My former City Editor went on a leave for a while and then came back to be the Food Editor. I thought if she could do that then I could make that little change too. I started freelancing for them around 2000 by writing for the magazine, when they had a magazine which included food and dining articles among more general content, which was my primary interest. Then in 2002, there was an opening – they had a restaurant reviewer leave – and at that point there were two full-time restaurant reviewers and I asked them to make it more about food and cooking. And that’s how I got into restaurant reviewing. It was not because of an innate love of restaurants.

I used to like to call myself the “second string” restaurant critic while Sheila Himmel was the primary restaurant critic.  She did most of the big ones for the Sunday section and I did the little ethnic places (in a column called “Quick Bites”) which was fun but pretty low key. It appeared with the regular restaurant reviews in the Friday paper.  That’s what I did until Sheila left the paper in a big buyout in 2005 when Knight-Ridder was preparing to sell the paper.  So when Sheila left, I became the only reviewer.  I had been at the Mercury News a long time by then.

wm.: And since then, the newspaper industry has been in decline…

Aleta: Yes. There had been cutbacks at the paper. From 2000-2001, we had more than 400 people on the news staff including writers, editors, copy editors, and now there are only 150 which is why a lot of content is lost because there aren’t the people there to produce it. This has happened all across the country and many newspapers don’t have food sections at all.   Nobody likes to see what happened and it’s very difficult for those who are on the inside, and it’s one of the reasons that I decided to leave.  It was just hard to do what I wanted to do because at the time I was doing the Food Section, cover stories and restaurant reviews. I didn’t feel like I was growing by doing more and more of the same and not hitting the high spots as often.

(Photoshop™ rendering by wm. christman)

(Photoshop™ rendering by wm. christman)

wm.: Are you a fancy restaurant person or a hole-in-the-wall restaurant person?

Aleta: I like both extremes.  I love the hole-in-the wall places with food I have never tasted before, the bold flavors, new textures – exciting new food.  Or renditions of food that was not the white-bread stuff I grew up with.  And I love the really high end. I love Manresa.  I been to the French Laundry. I love the French Laundry but I don’t think I will be able to afford it again because it’s so high end.

One day just before I left the Mercury, I was reviewing a restaurant in Los Gatos and we were going in from the parking lot, I passed one Lincoln Town Car after another. There must have been a dozen Lincoln Town Cars parked out around Manresa with drivers hanging around just waiting for their clients to finish eating their 200-300 dollar meal.  I love both (types of) restaurants, high end and low end, but journalists don’t make that much money and I’m just not in that price club.

wm.: So what is your favorite hole-in-the wall restaurant:

Aleta: Fiesta-Tepa-Sahuayo.  It’s a real authentic Mexican place on 1st Street in Watsonville. Because I have been eating for a living for so long there’s only so much I can eat, and I don’t go back to a lot of places, but I like the tortas at Mexico Bakery on Story Road. Those are quite wonderful; they are just over the top wonderful.  And I like the Ethiopian restaurant Mudai in downtown San Jose.  There are so many places…

wm.: Over the last several years, what do you see as the worst food trend in the Bay Area?

Aleta: I’m not real hot on the bar scene restaurant – you know, the cocktail lounge as restaurant.  I don’t find the food very good and I don’t drink hard liquor very often so it doesn’t appeal to me very much.  Usually the food is not very good if it’s really flashy.  And that’s really big, lots of places feel like they have to have them…high-end looking places, flashy ones like Fuel.  It really started strong with Sino and they have pretty nice food if you went for the dim sum – but (otherwise) it’s loud and it’s all about the theme and it’s not really about the food.  And the people don’t seem to be paying that much attention to the food.

wm.: Who are your favorite food writers?

Aleta: Russ Parsons (food writer for the LA Times).  I really like his work a lot.  Other writers I am more interested in are also cooks.

wm.: That was actually my next question, which chefs are your favorites?

Aleta: You’re going to laugh about this but I really like Jamie Oliver because his food tastes great.  His flavors are simple and he still cooks that way. The flavors are fabulous.  I’m working on getting every one of his cookbooks because these are the kinds of flavors I like and the recipes are things that I can do.  People think I do more complicated cooking but even I don’t want to spend forever chopping and pureeing…I like to have the food talk for itself.

wm.: What about celebrity chefs?

Aleta: I don’t watch too much food television anymore. I would watch when it was about a particular chef. I like Mario (Batali) because he’s real in his own overblown way. I like Jacques Pepin and chefs like that because they are real.  But I can’t deny that there are people like Rachel Ray who bring a lot of people, who have no idea how to cook at all, into their kitchens.  For that she deserves credit, but otherwise I think it’s just so much hot air.  I don’t really learn anything from that.  I’ll occasionally watch Top Chef because I feel that I have an obligation to keep up with popular culture when one is a journalist, but not because I enjoy it that much. I feel like they set up fights, competitions, and pitting people against each other to create ersatz emotion.

We create people who don’t really want to cook but go to cooking school with the idea of becoming celebrities so they can make a lot of money. And they spend so much money going to cooking school and when they’re done they have jobs that pay them 10-20 dollars an hour. And only a few of them are going to make it – it’s like kids that want to be basketball stars.

wm.: Anthony Bourdain?

Aleta: Oh, he’s great fun.  He’s witty; he’s urbane…he’s hard not to like. He goes way over the top all the time but I like it.  I think it’s because he’s smart and witty and it’s not dumbed down at all.  He’s an interesting celebrity chef in that he never really became a celebrity by doing his day job.  He became a celebrity because of how well he can write and how he can shock in a very smart way.

Part Two of our Aleta Watson interview will appear next week.


All’s Well That Ends Well (Sort of)

If you went to www.devilsfood.net and landed here at my blownstack domain, that is because I will relinquish devilsfood.net when it expires in early 2019. But The Devil Sends The Cooks is permanently archived here now…well, as much as something can be “permanently” archived electronically. For the why’s and wherefor’s,, read on…

This food blog was full of promise.  I carried on for several years not to achieve some sort of fame (and a lame Food Network/Cooking Channel show) but to merely write about food that I liked, in the area I live in and beyond.

Over the past many years, the blog has persisted mostly in a dormant state.  There was a horrendous server crash that left But The Devil… crushed and broken for well over a year. Reviving it was a decently monumental task of disk recovery, poring through randomly named files (a “feature” of disc recovery), and general angst.  But it eventually was finished and nearly 100% intact.  The future looked bright (again) and enthusiasm was high.

Unfortunately, the demands of real (ie., paid) work (plus personal life upheavals) took priority and writing became, well…a real chore without any feel-good payoff. Believe me, I never in a million years expected to make money off of doing this.  So the blog once again languished.  I mean, the last post was almost four years ago!

I came to the realization that I neither had time or the stamina to continue on although I kept a brave façade.  Everyone posts their fucking breakfast, lunch, and dinner on all manner of social and not-so-social media sites.  And nary a one has any sort of clue except “look at my picture of the quadruple patty, eight pounds of melted cheese and crispy bacon candy topped burger on a freshly larded bun with a side of fries with motor oil and deep-fried pencil shaving topping”.  Fuck all that.  Forever.

One other reason for putting this to bed is that my all-time favorite food “celebrity” Anthony Bourdain took his own life earlier this year.  To say I was crushed is a large understatement.  Much of his attitude about food/restaurants/etc were firmly in line with mine and that was even before I had heard of him.  Truly a monumental loss.

And more recently, the nation’s best and deservedly decorated food writer Jonathan Gold passed away suddenly (pancreatic cancer gives zero fucks about when it takes your life).  And I would be remiss to mention our own local food writer Aleta Watson left us suddenly.  At a real low moment in my personal life, I had the great pleasure to interview her for this blog.  (You can find those articles here.)

So that’s it.  I’m done.  I will have another device (soon) that will be about food but it won’t be a blog.  Maybe you’ll find it. Maybe you won’t. Either way, I bid you peace and a happy life.